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football is a magnet for online abuse – but it is also the ideal platform to challenge it

مجلة المذنب نت متابعات عالمية:

As Euro 2024 enjoys its first week of high-stakes football, thoughts will have returned to how the last one ended. One of the abiding memories of the Euro 2020 final was the vile racist abuse black English players received following the team’s penalty shootout loss against Italy.

Although the media had reported on online hate and abuse in sport before, this was the first time the issue really caught the public’s attention in terms of widespread condemnation, and was covered comprehensively by the press.

Now, the police, sporting and private organisations that are hired to block abusive content are using this summer’s Euros to highlight legislative and technological improvements that can be implemented to help protect the players this time around.

However, the reality is that the abuse received by players in a high-profile match is only the tip of the iceberg of a widespread culture of online abuse that permeates football at all levels, and has significant implications beyond the direct wellbeing of the footballers who receive the abuse.

I work with a group of researchers on the Tacking Online Hate in Football and United Against Online Abuse projects, which seek to explore the issue of online abuse more widely in football and, in the latter project, other sports too.

We have been looking at how hate speech has evolved in international football tournaments over several years, and have just finished analysing data from eight European championships (both men’s and women’s) since 2008.

Football has always had a problem with hate speech, long before the advent of social media. Social media has just made it easier to perpetrate, and more visible to the public and its victims.

The significance of the game both at the individual level, where we invest so much of our identities and emotions, and at the societal level, where the game is often used as a political tool to build a sense of national pride, is the perfect environment for breeding cultures of online abuse. International football tournaments in particular act as trigger points because this is where different countries (and cultures) clash in a hyper-competitive environment.

Fans often view their country’s performance in the tournament as symbolic of broader domestic issues, such as immigration. See, for example, the recent opinion poll in Germany concerning the ethnic diversity of the national team and the controversy it has created at a time when the German far-right is growing.

Challenging discrimination

We used machine learning to detect different instances of hate speech such as racism, homophobia, ableism and sexism across approximately 50 million tweets (around 22 million of which were in English) concerning the tournaments.

Our preliminary results suggest the overall percentage of tweets featuring some form of abusive or offensive language appears to be consistently at about 1% over the period. What is worrying, however, is that social media use, particularly in sports, has rocketed in the last decade. So that 1% now represents a massive volume of toxic content.

A mural celebrating Marcus Rashford in Withington, Manchester was defaced after he missed a penalty in the Euro 2020 final. Residents and fans later cleared it of racist graffiti.
Clare Waddingham / Alamy

Beyond the descriptive findings, our project has also carried out extensive interviews with players at all levels. Players are subject to a variety of online harms beyond online abuse including doxing (disclosing people’s addresses online), bribery, online stalking and so on.

Players who publicly challenge discrimination are particularly vulnerable to online abuse. As you would expect, it affects them at both a professional and personal level. However, it is striking to observe how normalised and accepted this has become. Players receive social media training, but this rarely extends to how to cope with abuse. Most clubs are under-resourced and club personnel lack specialist knowledge around online abuse, its effect, and how to respond.

It is important to understand that the problem goes well beyond the players. We also interviewed sporting administrators, journalists, officials, managers and social media employees – and have extensively surveyed fans on the matter.

Fans are often framed in the media and research as perpetrators. However, they are also the group that is most widely affected by online abuse. When Marcus Rashford is racially abused, every black fan who sees that tweet is also a victim of racism. Of the fans we surveyed, 83% have received online abuse directly.

Furthermore, our preliminary findings suggest that the frequency of experiencing abuse increases the likelihood that a fan will then became an abuser themselves. Football fandom becomes a vicious circle of tribalism and hate.

Beyond the cumulative impact on wellbeing that online abuse has on individuals, our research indicates that online abuse has wider and at times unexpected implications. For example, our interviews with football journalists indicate the culture of abuse leads to self-censoring of work. The toxic elements of fandom can be co-opted to silence journalists and other critics whose views are opposed.

There is no silver bullet, and it is unlikely this abuse will ever be completely eradicated. The private sector has capitalised on the problem, developing products that capture online abuse and protect the social media accounts of athletes. These services are increasingly used by professional clubs. This may protect the elite athletes, but it is merely masking the complexity of the problem.

Read more:
Football’s referee crisis: we asked thousands of refs about the abuse and violence that’s driving them out of the game

Legislation is needed that places the burden of responsibility on the social media platforms. Policies and laws are needed that will encourage
sporting and civil organisations to protect employees and members from online abuse.

Education is important here too. It is an easy word to use in these discussions, but more thought must be put into who to target with limited educational resources, and what these education resources should look like.

Football is a magnet for online abuse. However, because of the way it captures the public imagination, it also provides the perfect opportunity to articulate, educate and challenge the wider issue of online abuse.

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